Here’s Why it Doesn’t Matter: United Announces Your Miles Won’t Expire

United Airlines announced yesterday that there will no longer be an expiration date on the miles you earn in your Mileage Plus account.  For sure, this is not bad news.  Certainly not like the news of United switching to dynamic award pricing.  That has taken awards that used to be expensive and turned them into impossible.  141,000 miles one-way to Hawaii in a business class seat, anyone?

View From The Wing has a quote from Luc Bondar, who’s in charge of the United MileagePlus program:

According to Luc Bondar, United’s vice president of loyalty, “We want to demonstrate to our members that we are committing to them for the long-haul and giving customers a lifetime to use miles is an exceptionally meaningful benefit.”

No, this is not an exceptionally meaningful benefit.  And, that’s not Luc’s fault, or United’s.

Actually, one of my all-time favorite airline executives said it best.  That was Maya Leibman, back when she ran the American Airlines.  It was at a travel summit run by Randy Petersen.  I’m guessing it was 2013.  Delta had just changed their policy to eliminate the expiration of miles.  Randy asked Maya if American Airlines had similar plans.  Maya gave a pretty firm no, and explained why.

I’m paraphrasing her answer, but she said something along the lines of: We believe this is a loyalty program, and that’s a two-way street, a relationship.  If you don’t interact with us for 18 months, don’t fly on our airplanes, redeem your miles, spend on one of our credit cards or the other host of ways we have to earn and redeem miles, we don’t have much of a relationship, do we?

The Final Two Pennies

Your United miles no longer expire.  That’s not a bad thing.  But, if you don’t have any need for United Airlines over an 18-month period, you don’t have a meaningful relationship with them.  Thus, the fact that your miles didn’t expire probably isn’t an exceptionally meaningful benefit, either.

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20 Comments

  1. I think your take makes sense for a travel blogger or for active miles and points enthusiasts but not for the average person. My in-laws live in South America most of the year and spend a couple of months in the U.S. every year to visit the portion of their family that lives here. They have low income, so that’s the only travel they can afford. But they were buying two fairly expensive round trip tickets every year, and they expected to get a free flight at some point. Then they had health issues and couldn’t travel one year. It resulted in a gap longer than 18 months, so without realizing it (and without warning from American of course), their miles expired. Despite being loyal customers for a number of years, they never benefited from the AAdvantage program. You appear to be applauding the airline executive’s rationale for justifying that result, but it’s clearly consumer unfriendly.

    1. TCW, thanks for weighing in. Sorry to hear your in-laws had health issues and hope they’re doing better now. AA used to warn about expiring miles not sure if they still do. However, I don’t think your in-laws are the “average person”. I think the true average person is someone who lives in the US and only travels once or twice a year at most. Someone who lives outside of the US has a lot less reason to value the partnership the US airlines have with rental car companies, florists, US-based merchants like Gap, Apple, etc. In short, the typical US consumer who doesn’t travel often could still use the shopping portal or carry a credit card and have literally dozens of interactions a year with the airline.

      1. I disagree. Miles and points enthusiasts think about shopping portals and what not. Average people really don’t. I guess what I’m really asking about is your willingness to embrace something that is obviously very unfriendly to consumers. Why does that appeal to you? Because the consumer should know better, so tough luck if they lose something of value? Better to have the airline get a small windfall than the little guy who travels infrequently get something for free once in a long time? I’m sure that’s not your attitude, but you seem happier with the idea of miles that expire than miles that don’t.

        1. TCW, I don’t wish for anyone’s miles to expire, ever, But, I also don’t regard an 18-month expiration as very unfriendly. I actually think the airline doesn’t get all that much of a windfall, if any, by wiping out the miles. There are plenty of studies that show a customer increases their activity with an airline, hotel, credit card etc when they redeem points. And, the airlines offer so many ways to engage with them, including redeeming some miles for a one-way flight (or a magazine subscription or a thousand other things) to keep those miles active. All things the average customer does from time to time, like use a credit card.

  2. “But, if you don’t have any need for United Airlines over an 18-month period, you don’t have a meaningful relationship with them.”

    Counterpoint: I understood what Maya meant, and what you mean. While UA (or from original reference, AA), as a business entity may not feel a customer has a meaningful relationship if there is no account activity in 18 months, the infrequent, non-business traveler, non-frequent flyer customer may have a different perspective. Maybe someone can only afford one airplane trip with their family every couple of years, and maybe UA (or AA) is the only realistic, convenient way for them to get to their preferred destination, and maybe they cannot obtain a co-brand credit card for whatever reason. That doesn’t mean the customer does not “feel” something toward the airline akin to a “relationship.”

    Think of your own situation, how you felt as a young child and the positive association you had with AA because your father flew AA, which later in life influenced you to be an AA EXP for many years. I have a similar experience and feeling ascribed to EA (Eastern Airlines) as that was the first carrier I remember flying solo as an unaccompanied minor, which is then what led me to become a OnePass member, which then introduced me to Continental, and which has evolved into a relationship with United. Would AA or EA have considered you or I to have meaningful relationships with them? Probably not. But did you and I – at our young ages, and when we started frequently flying – feel we were predisposed to a relationship with them? Absolutely.

    And that’s part of what I think is lost in the short-sightedness of reducing frequent flyer programs solely to a “customer provides airline with ‘x’ value, airline provides customer with a derivative of ‘x’ rebate, and that’s how we define ‘meaningful relationship’.” The aspirational and inspirational – that granted, is much harder to measure, and is more nebulous for quants to ascribe value – gets lost in the shuffle. Yet it is precisely this “aspirational and inspirational” (non-meaningful?) relationship that a customer has with an airline that drives people to be irrationally passionate about an inanimate entity.

    #endsoapbox

    1. real_jetsetr, love that soapbox! I think you definitely know how many different ways there are for an individual to interact with an airline. Heck, just about every year there’s a promotion to earn free miles for filling out a survey or playing a game, etc. I think the subset of people who don’t travel AND can’t get a co-brand card AND don’t use shopping portals AND don’t rent cars AND don’t buy flowers AND……etc is much smaller.

      1. The inherent assumption you are making is that people know about all of these different ways to have account activity. It’s easy for you and me to understand and know of the myriad ways to have account activity. But we are not typical travelers, and we spend an inordinate amount of time paying attention to these programs, while the average person does not. Regardless, and as in the example TCW provided, that doesn’t mean that one does not feel as if they have a “meaningful relationship” with the airline (say because they took a honeymoon flight to Hawaii, were upgraded to first class, but haven’t flown since – but because of that positive interaction, will only want to fly that particular carrier).

        1. To some degree, your argument means that an airline loyalty program should be like a Subway punch card. No matter how long it takes me to get my 10 punches I should be entitled to a free sandwich. I’d argue that’s more like a rebate program. And, I’d still argue that if you feel you have a meaningful relationship with someone (or some company) you look for ways to do more with that relationship. Like follow a blog such as mine to find all the ways to earn more AAdvantage miles. 😉

          1. I’m not saying that at all (although I could absolutely argue these days that with award devaluations, airline loyalty programs are absolutely more akin to straight rebate / punch card programs). What I am saying is that regardless of how the airline may define “meaningful,” an *individual* may absolutely feel as if they have a meaningful relationship with a carrier (even if they don’t take the time to find ways to do more with that relationship, because they’re not part of the travel community, and they don’t know / don’t have time to add more information to their flotsam and jetsam).

            As far as following your blog to learn more, I just happened to stumble upon this article randomly and decided to comment. But I don’t read blogs (especially these crazy travel blogs) regularly, so I’m not even sure I know how to “subscribe.”

          2. Well, I think you stumbled on the right blog. But, I still don’t think what you’re talking about is a meaningful relationship. You don’t need to be part of the travel community to read an occasional e-mail from the airline or look around their website. They’re pretty good about that marketing stuff.

          3. Jason, I guess that depends on the goal. I’m also not sure it makes sense to be loyal in today’s climate, as opposed to picking the times and flights that suit your schedule best.

  3. Also, on a lighter note, “That was Maya Liebman, back when she ran the American Airlines” [sic]. If you read that sentence with a thick, stereotypical Jamaican accent, and ended the sentence with the word, “man,” that actually is kind of humorous 🙂

  4. Respectfully differ. My kids have FF accounts with all airlines. We buy tickets based on fares and destinations. Sometimes they don’t fly on the same airline for 2 years. Why should their miles expire? That just makes me resent the airline and less likely to buy tix in the future. It is a reason I never credit miles to any program that has a hard expiration date.

  5. For those of us who buy miles outright, no credit card option, the no expiration is very very good news!!!
    If miles date is current, yes, a minimal mall purchase keeps them active, for those on the ball. But once expired, my sister needed to buy an option, pay $ to do it, then fly only in continental US to reset. So she needed to fly from AU to US to do this. She had paid around $10k US to buy the miles originally. The company got her money in cold hard cash, at the outset.

  6. I have to disagree with you on this one Ed…it’s a freaking brilliant move. I have to look at my parents, they travel once a year, but they gladly pay 5x-6x the cheapest fare because they want to get United points. Now mind you, they have no idea how many points they have, how to redeem them, and have any interest on anything outside of flying, but they are loyal to United. I can’t imagine they are the exception…..

    For many of us, we are to close to the points game……

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